What’s up with decentralization (“Administrative Unit Proliferation”) in Uganda these days?

I just came across a fascinating new article on decentralization by two political scientists. Here is the abstract:

Numerous developing countries have substantially increased their number of sub-national administrative units in recent years. The literature on this phenomenon is, nonetheless, small and suffers from several theoretical and methodological shortcomings; in particular, a unit of analysis problem that causes past studies to mistakenly de-emphasize the importance of local actors. We posit that administrative unit proliferation occurs where and when there is a confluence of interests between the national executive and local citizens and elites from areas that are politically, economically and ethnically marginalized. We argue further that although the proliferation of administrative units often accompanies or follows far-reaching decentralization reforms, it likely results in a recentralization of power; the proliferation of new local governments fragments existing units into smaller ones with lower relative intergovernmental bargaining power and administrative capacity. We find support for these arguments using original data from Uganda.

The article is by Guy Grossman & Janet Lewis and it’s fascinating. Read the whole thing. I found one especially interesting argument that I’d like to mull over (the piece also produced a couple of off-topic questions in my mind). Grossman and Lewis argue that the process of decentralization first undertaken by rebels-turned-politicians has actually led to a recentralization of power in Uganda. From page 33:

Turning to political dependence, in recent years local government officials are increasingly appointed by the center, rather then [sic] being elected. Most dramatically, a 2008 amendment to the Local Government Act stripped from the directly elected District Chairperson the power to appoint the Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) and other senior level administrators. Instead the central government’s Public Service Commission was granted the power to appoint senior level administrators, who are assigned to districts by the Ministry of Local Government. The 2008 amendment has, in effect, put the entire technocratic arm of the district under the purview of the central government rather than the district’s elected political leadership.

So what is happening in Uganda (and, according to authors, elsewhere in the developing world) is that more and more administrative units (think counties or states in a US context) are being produced, but that this is actually making the executive branch stronger rather than weaker. Does this make sense? If not, you know where the comments section is.

I find this process of decentralization fascinating, largely because I think it is more conducive to freedom (in the broadest possible sense) and as a result produces more economic prosperity (see my pieces on secession within the US, EU). What I had not accounted for was the fact that decentralization could actually make it easier for a tyrant to control a swath of territory. So naturally I had to ask why this recentralization has come about.

The answer, I think, is on page 35 of the same article:

Since the late 1980s, key players in the international development community—such as the World Bank and USAID—have encouraged developing countries to implement far reaching decentralization reforms.

So foreign aid is probably the cause of loss of local power, but also the catalyst for such decentralization in the first place (by bribing post-colonial governments to decentralize; but what about ideology? From what I can tell, the rebels who set up Uganda’s new government were committed to decentralization in order to maintain peace between tribes and limit power of the center, rather than to get money from Western lending institutions).

Let me try again. Decentralization became all the buzz in development circles after the collapse of the Berlin Wall. Western lending institutions began paying governments when they decentralized. However, there may have been an indigenous drive for devolution that is overlooked here, and this drive may have been overpowered by the bribes given to governments by Western aid donors. This clash – between Western donors and indigenous attempts to assert sovereignty while integrating into the world economy – is what I think would be worth exploring further.

There is also the issue of economic prosperity. While decentralization may have led to a recentralization of power in the post-colonial world (I am not convinced that decentralization is to blame; I think foreign aid is largely responsible for the inability of developing states to fully decentralize), I am inclined to argue that decentralization has also led to a dramatic decline in poverty levels.

I mentioned the halving of global poverty a couple of days ago, and this decline, coupled with the increase in decentralization, suggests that the libertarian impulse to decentralize power structures does lead to wealthier, healthier societies. So with the dramatic increase of world prosperity in mind, I have to ask if the recentralization efforts of governments are given too much weight in the Grossman & Lewis paper.

I am sure that decentralization has not been perfect. I am sure that decentralization has left many people who supported it deeply unsatisfied. What I am less sure about is that supporting the status quo (that is to say, prohibiting decentralization by any means necessary) would have been a better option than the one post-colonial states have been pursuing for the last twenty years. It seems to me like the process of decentralization has been a good one, all things considered.

So, now that I have made it known that I think foreign aid is to blame for the (perceived) recentralization of power in Uganda, and now that I have made it known that I think decentralization has been more good than bad for people, what do I think needs to be done to address the problem of recentralization that Grossman & Lewis argue is occurring?

My quick, lazy answers are 1) create a Senate, and 2) keep liberalizing the economy.

There are other, supplemental prescriptions (such as ensuring property rights protections are strong; this is probably best handled by integrating indigenous property laws with generally agreed upon rules governing world trade; in this respect, African states that were a part of the British Empire generally do a great job, and the failures of these states can largely be attributed to protectionist policies after decolonization), but I think my lazy answers are more straightforward, and would get better results (at least in the context former British colonies). (h/t Joshua Keating)